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Somalis find home in Barron, Wisconsin

BARRON, Wis. -- A postcard of small-town Wisconsin from any time in the past 100 years could look a lot like this place: lush fields on the outskirts dotted with barns, silos and dairy cows; a well-kept main street with one of those old-fashioned...

BARRON, Wis. -- A postcard of small-town Wisconsin from any time in the past 100 years could look a lot like this place: lush fields on the outskirts dotted with barns, silos and dairy cows; a well-kept main street with one of those old-fashioned variety stores rarely seen in the Wal-Mart era.

However, snapshots from few towns in this state or any other would include brightly clothed refugees from strife-torn Somalia.

The Somalis -- called "Somalians" by seemingly everyone in town -- settled here en masse in the late 1990s, dropping, as one resident put it, 500 black African Muslims into the middle of white Christian America, with 300 more likely to come soon, Wisconsin officials said.

Most of the Somalis were lured from nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul, where they settled in the mid-1990s, The Turkey Store, a huge Jenny-O processing plant run by Hormel. Like a lot of immigrants, they do the dirty jobs, slicing up poultry alongside locals who will take the work.

Barron is not alone. Sometimes it seems like a giant social experiment is taking place in rural Wisconsin, where in the last decade or so blocs of outsiders have moved into small towns whose Northern European bloodlines go back for generations.

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Hmong have moved into Eau Claire and Mexicans to Arcadia. The Amish, white Christians but decidedly outsiders, have moved into Grant County and the surrounding area in southwestern Wisconsin.

Problems abound, from minor culture clashes -- an argument over manure from Amish horses -- to the killing of six white hunters by a Hmong man in 2004. In Arcadia last year, the mayor attracted national attention when he attempted to crack down on illegal immigration and establish English as the town's official language.

Integration was not smooth in Barron either, residents say. There were race-fueled fights in school. Most of the Somalis lived in their own quarter and interaction was limited.

By most accounts, things have improved, and many townspeople say the Somalis are generally accepted or at least tolerated. Police Chief Byron Miller said the biggest problem is drug busts of khat, also known as qat, a leaf chewed by Somalis as a stimulant that is illegal in the U.S. Shipments from Africa have been intercepted from the Twin Cities to Chicago.

"They're here to work hard and hopefully have a better life," Miller said. "They're very family-oriented people."

But tensions remain. Some women complained that Somali men had tried to grope them or followed them in parks. And many residents remember the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" battle in Mogadishu, where 18 Army Rangers (and hundreds of Somalis) were killed and some American soldiers' bodies were dragged through the streets by Somali mobs.

At The Big House tavern, several patrons were openly hostile. One said he had had numerous fistfights with Somalis; another suggested putting them all on a boat back to Africa and sinking it halfway across.

Regardless, the Somalis appear to be here for the long haul. Going back to their lawless country, where fighting is constant among rival warlords and Islamic insurgents, is not an option. Even if it were, many would stay, said Osman Musse, who works as a liaison to the Somali community for the local hospital.

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"Barron people are nice people. They accepted us," said Musse, who sports a bright-red beard and traditional round Somali cap. "At first there was a little difficulty ... but now they know us and we know them."

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